I am lucky enough, this semester, to be teaching on the grounds of Roscoe Village, a restored canal town in central Ohio. COTC, the college for whom I teach, has a history of repurposing spaces into effective, imaginative college campuses. I teach in what was once an inn; the lobbies have chairs you can sink into and, on brisk Ohio days, fires snapping on broad hearths. The classrooms are bright and friendly.
The students are bright and friendly, too, and it occurred to me that, since we are meeting in the midst of a historic space, we ought to work that into our writing. So this semester, I connected with the wonderful folks at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum. It’s right next door to the COTC building, and one day my students and I walked over for a tour led by Reba Kocher, who manages the collections at the museum.
Reba took the students on an in-depth tour of the exhibits, and then she gave them a wonderful opportunity to sit and examine real artifacts up close and personal. She showed them how to handle aged items; she let the students tour the archives and see that not all museum treasures are always on view.
I tasked the students with writing a reflection paper. They could reflect on an artifact; they could reflect on the visit. They could reflect on museums themselves, and the richness and values such institutions bring to our society.
Sometimes I task myself with doing the same assignment as the students. So I wrote my own reflection on our visit, and I wove in the fact that I had worked in Roscoe many years ago as a historical interpreter.
Then I found out that the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum hosts an essay-writing contest called the Mary Harris Prize (http://jhmuseum.org/index.php/learn/adult-programs/353-mary-harris). I decided to submit my essay, even though it was more personal reflection than historic study. I am thrilled and honored to say that it was selected as the winner. Jennifer Bush, the Museum’s director, has given me permission to share the essay here.
We are exploring, my students and I, in a room filled with Native American artifacts. They pore over cases of arrow heads, fingers tracing the glass; they are arrested by a crinkly roll of seal intestines, and by a doll made from that same odd material. They stop to examine the miniature canoe carefully created, 100 years ago maybe, by a young boy who wanted something to play with on the creeks and rivers of Ohio. That boy was learning, too, a craft he’d need to master as a man.
I was excited by the opportunity to bring my Comp I class to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, on a visit that would build a platform for their reflection papers. I was worried, too. I thought they might feel bored or disengaged.
But now they cram into a recreated cave; they pound a deep-voiced drum. In the Farm Bureau exhibit, they light up with recognition. They talk about their own 4-H experiences.
“I love museums,” one sighs, and classmates echo agreement.
The students follow our tour guide, Reba Kocher, eagerly. Reba leads them downstairs to a room where, gathered around tables in groups of four or five, they learn to handle artifacts with respect and care and, sometimes, with gloves. She tells them the story of the museum; she brings out a fragile mummified foot for them to look at.
She takes them, in small groups, into the museum’s archives, and she lets them see the stored treasures not always on view.
They examine snuff bottles and knife holders, a samurai’s katana, beautifully woven baskets, and tin advertising trays. They talk in low murmurs, and they ask smart, engaged questions.
Time’s membrane is usually sturdy and unrelenting, but there are places and there are times when it stretches so thin, it’s less than transparent. It’s invisible.
In those moments, I can reach right through and touch the past.
Now I watch my students make that reach; their faces are lit, and they are present, for this microcosm, in many different eras. Reba has created this time-stretching interlude for them; she has thoughtfully constructed their tour and their experiences in this room, examining, up close and personal, vestiges of lives long past.
And the place helps, too. I have always thought that there are special places where the current of time hums close to the surface.
Roscoe Village, home to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum and COTC’s Coshocton campus, is one of those places.
I discovered Roscoe in 2003 when I was looking for work. We had moved, after my husband graduated at age 49 from an Ohio law school, to Mount Vernon, and I began to look for higher ed jobs. I updated my resume and agonized over my cover letters, and I sent out packet after packet to four-year schools and community colleges.
The silence from those colleges, as Mark settled into his first job as an attorney and our son learned to navigate a new school, was profound.
So, I went online and started looking at other working possibilities, and I discovered Roscoe Village, a restored canal town less than 50 miles away. The Village was accepting applications for historical re-enactors. I couldn’t think of a job that sounded more like fun.
I sent off my resume; I got a call. Before long, I had a long, flowered dress and a crisp, lace-trimmed collar, a thick, rectangular name tag, and a bonnet. I went searching for authentic looking shoes that would also be comfortable. And I began learning, from people like Dick Hoover, how a printer loaded and inked metal letters to run a broadside or a newspaper, how a cooper plied his froe, and what exactly it took, in an 1800’s frontier town, to put together a family dinner.
I learned, too, the history of the place,–learned, for instance, about Mary Harris and about the White Woman’s Rock; those tales are often jumbled together in tumbled memory but were not, at all, the same story. I learned about the canal, a kind of crazy visionary enterprise that opened up the frontier and made regular people’s westward moves possible. I learned about the Montgomery’s, industrialist Edward and his wife, Frances, who began, in the early 1960’s, to ensure that Roscoe would showcase the area’s canal days history (“History”).
Because of the canal, Eliza Johnson, in the late 1800’s, had real wallpaper, ordered from Europe, on the walls of her Roscoe Village parlor.
Because of the canal, Ohio farmers could ship their produce to eastern states and receive, on the return trip, manufactured essentials that made frontier life simmer and hum.
On Sundays, on the ground level of the doctor’s house, I often spun a trussed chicken over a hearth fire and cooked cornbread in a cast iron Dutch oven. Upstairs, Betty Lou might be taking visitors through the common rooms, the dining room with its glass fly catcher and fancy dishes, the parlor with its stiff-looking company chairs. Then the guests went outside and trooped down the cellar stairs to see the part of the house where the never-ending work of cooking was once done.
One early Sunday, we arrived to open up the doctor’s house. Betty Lou unlocked the front door and hurried off to put her purse in the staff room. I pulled back the bolt and opened the door to the inside stairs that would take me to the ground floor. I looked down the stairs, and as clear as I see, now, the keyboard that I type on, I saw a woman standing next to the cooking table.
Her head and shoulders were obscured by the hand-hewn wooden beam that girdered the ceiling. Her long skirt was a shiny, silky material, copper-colored with tiny stripes of white. She wore soft white leather boots that buttoned up the sides.
She was dressed for visiting, not for cooking, and I wondered why she was in the kitchen. And she was so patently from another time that I wondered why she was in the kitchen NOW.
I was not frightened, but I had a strong sense that I was intruding. I closed the cellar door, and I shook my head briskly. Betty Lou bustled back out and gave me a look.
I opened the door again and of course, no one was there. I went on down to light the fire.
Today, I can close my eyes and bring back the precise image of that skirt, the clearly etched lines of those shoes. I have no idea if, still groggy on a Sunday morning, I just had an extraordinarily lucid waking dream, or if, perhaps, for that tiny moment in time, the membrane really had peeled fully back.
I met the most amazing people working at Roscoe. Betty Lou and Dick were among many mentors who’d retired from one career to find joy in working at the restored canal town. They were skilled and savvy; they loved and they lived the history of the place. They were generous in sharing their knowledge and skills with a newcomer.
The rest of my new worker cohort were, for the most part, college students. Those wonderful young people threw themselves into their jobs, showing up early, staying late, absorbing the lore, learning the crafts. They deftly plied spindles on the mammoth loom, hammered searing hot metal on the blacksmith’s anvil, and wielded the froe in the cooper’s shop. The history, I saw, was real for them, too.
I worked a lot in the doctor’s house. I also spent many days as the teacher in the Roscoe schoolhouse, having my students practice their printing on slates, quizzing them on their arithmetic tables, and showing them the lidded tin bucket they’d bring their tasty lard sandwiches in for lunch. If there were lefties in the group, I’d threaten to tie those left hands to the desktop, forcing them to learn to write with their right hand—the good one. Before the lesson went on so long as to get boring, a warning bell would toll, and we’d rush out the door and across the street to the water pump. There, we’d fill and pass canvas buckets, hurrying to help extinguish an imaginary fire.
It was a treat to see children in their modern clothes, some with lights that blinked on and off in the soles of their gym shoes when they ran to grab their buckets, playing the parts of children in the 1880’s.
“Don’t forget your homework!” I would holler, and, like students set free in any day, they would joyously ignore me.
I worked at Roscoe for two years, settled in, began to feel the rhythms of the place. I bought myself a cast iron Dutch oven to use at home. On a hot summer day, we roasted a chicken over a fire in the old brick barbecue oven in my backyard while corn bread baked in the coals. We took out-of-town visitors to the Village. Awareness of canal town life settled into my bones.
And then one day, a call came from one of those schools who’d received my resume. I traded in my schoolmarm togs for jackets, slacks, and sensible shoes, and I picked up the threads of a career in higher ed.
I tried to get back to Roscoe at least once a year, but the time between visits lengthened, and my work intensified into a sort of middle manager’s role which sometimes claimed my evenings and weekends.
And then we moved again, and my trips to Roscoe stopped happening at all.
Until retirement dawned, and the opportunity to teach as an adjunct for COTC, and sometimes at their Coshocton campus, brought me back to Roscoe Village.
Now, as I watch my students, many of them in high school, interact with Reba at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, I realize that some of them hadn’t even been born during my re-enactor days; what seems like just a bit ago to me is a lifetime for them. To my students, my Roscoe stories themselves are history.
And it comes to me that the new and the now are history in the making; that the students’ visit to the Museum will become a memory, a tale they might share with grandchildren one day, when those little people come bursting with enthusiasm to tell Grandma or Grandpa about this wonderful place the teacher took them to…
But what a treat and a privilege to work, again, in a place where the past is always present, where the brick sidewalks and the welcoming shops nod to canal-era days, and where Roscoe’s historical re-enactors still draw visitors into history’s web. What a joy to work with students who feel the pull of that history and to whom, one day, our class will be part of that remembering.
“Who was that teacher?” they might ask each other, twenty years hence, shepherding their ten-year olds down the winding sidewalk, heading for the Roscoe Village school on a fourth grade field trip. “You know, the kind of wacky one who took us to the museum?”
They’ll feel the pull of their own histories as they weave into the present of a heritage-laden town and era, and they’ll feel a deep satisfaction, too, that their children are learning about history by living it,…by visiting a place where the membrane of time supports our todays even as it grows, just for that one reaching moment, mighty thin.
“History.” Roscoe Village, 2019, https://roscoevillage.com/history.